Antarctica may spark next international land grab if treaties not tightened

By Charles Gray Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-11 21:48:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When considering Antarctica's future, it is wise to look to Africa's past. The 19th century "scramble for Africa" not only resulted in most of Africa being partitioned among the colonial powers, but also helped set in motion a series of events that led to the growing international tension that would contribute to the start of WWI.

Today, we may be on the cusp of another scramble, this time for the resources of Antarctica. While it is unlikely to spark a war, if handled poorly it could result in growing international tension over what is essentially the last unclaimed landmass on earth.

Many advocates of retaining the current system will point to the current treaties controlling access to Antarctica, most especially Article 7 of the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which states that "Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited."

Furthermore, Article 4 of the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959 prevents the expansion of any new territorial claims while the treaty is in effect.

However, this treaty system has no means of enforcement in case of non-compliance.

When these treaties were created, Antarctica's resources were impossible to profitably extract. For this reason, it is unlikely that any of the signatories felt that their national interests were being harmed by banning commercial exploitation of the continent.

But now, a large part of Antarctica will be rendered more hospitable for development by the effects of global climate change.

In addition, the continuing growth of many national economies continues to increase the demand for industrial minerals.

Although the currently known mineral deposits in Antarctica have yet to demonstrate any unusually high value, only a small portion of the continent has been surveyed. Rising industrial demand could result in even marginal mineral deposits becoming valuable enough to merit exploitation.

While many environmental advocates argue that the proper response is to simply continue to ban the economic development of Antarctica, this falls afoul of the simple fact that at no point in history has a treaty been able to prevent nations and their citizens alike from acting in what they perceive as their best interests.

Most importantly, the current treaty structure has no mechanism for enforcement, depending on the signatories to voluntarily enforce its provisions. It is an open question as to what would occur if a non-signatory power or large private organization attempted to commercially exploit the continent in defiance of the treaty.

The question of adjudicating national claims also remains an issue that may have to be modified in the face of commercial exploitation of the continent.

Large parts of Antarctica lie unclaimed, and many nations, especially among the developing world, might have cause to contest the current claims. The best solution to these issues is to recognize that the Antarctic Treaty should be modified well in advance of any commercial exploitation, avoiding the difficulties that would arise in trying to modify it in the face of already existing conflicts.

Unlike an uncontrolled scramble, an international system of supervision would be able to ensure that any commercial operations would operate in an environmentally responsible manner. Due to the fragile nature of the Antarctic ecosystem, this is a vital consideration for any future treaty.

Ultimately, a cooperative system of international regulation would be far more beneficial in both economic and political terms than waiting until Antarctica becomes the site of an uncontrolled 21st century territorial scramble.

The author is a freelance writer based in Corona, California.

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